Warm-hearted man who made the 'most terrifying film ever'

Tobe Hooper directed the 1974 iconic horror movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Tobe Hooper directed the 1974 iconic horror movie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

NEW YORK • Tobe Hooper, who realised just how terrifying a chainsaw in the wrong hands could be and used the insight to make one of the most influential horror movies of the last century, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), died last Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 74.

The Los Angeles County coroner's office said he died of natural causes, The Associated Press reported.

Hooper's other directing credits included Poltergeist, the 1982 ghost story he made with Steven Spielberg, and episodes of television shows such as Tales From The Crypt (1991). But his most enduring contribution was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a low-budget sleeper that became a cult hit, helped establish horror conventions that are still widely used and influenced countless other directors.

William Friedkin, who directed that other iconic 1970s horror movie, The Exorcist (1973), described Hooper in a tweet as "a kind, warm-hearted man who made the most terrifying film ever. A good friend I will never forget".

Hooper said that, as a young man, he loved the horror genre, but found that the films in it had become boring.

"I figured I was paying two bucks a ticket, a dollar and a half a ticket, and I was getting about 10 cents' worth of scare," he said in Masters Of Horror, a 2002 documentary. Then a friend steered him to Night Of The Living Dead, the 1968 film by George A. Romero (who died last month).

"I walked out thinking, 'Okay, that's the way to do it,'" Hooper said.

Romero's film was an inspiration for the would-be director, but he still needed an idea. It came to him, he said, in the hardware department of a store during a busy Christmas season, with his low tolerance for crowds as a catalyst.

"I was kind of freaking, just wanted to get out of there, get out of the crowd," he said in the documentary.

"And so I found myself in front of a chainsaw display in the hardware department and that's where the idea came from - 'Well, if I pick this damn thing up and start it, they'll part like the Red Sea and I can get out of here.'"

The result was his breakthrough film, shot in Texas with a cast of unknowns and Hooper, also an unknown, in the director's chair. (With Kim Henkel, he also wrote the story and screenplay.)

The tale involves two siblings and their friends, a family of cannibals, and a chainsaw-wielding madman named Leatherface (played by Gunnar Hansen) who wears a mask made of human skin. Drawing some elements from the real-life story of serial killer Ed Gein, the movie shocked with its propulsive violence. Hooper, though, maintained that it was not as gory as many people assumed.

"The girl on the meathook," he said in the documentary, "when I pan down her body to show the washtub underneath, it is obviously to catch a lot of fluid. There's nothing dripping from her. It's just, you put it together in your mind."

Critics were not enthusiastic about the film. An official of the British Board of Film Classification, which for years refused to certify the movie, described it as trafficking in "the pornography of terror".

Tobe Hooper was born on Jan 25, 1943, in Austin, Texas. His parents, he said in interviews, were in the hotel business, which left him often babysitting himself by going to the movies as they checked up on their properties in various cities.

He began by shooting documentaries, then in 1969 made his first feature, Eggshells, which drew little attention. Among his best television work was a two-part adaptation of Salem's Lot, Stephen King's novel, for CBS in 1979.

Poltergeist, a box-office hit, saw Hooper working with Spielberg, one of the movie's producers and writers. Horror movie buffs have long suggested that Spielberg was really the director, but Hooper chafed at that notion.

Information on Hooper's survivors was not immediately available.

Among the directors influenced by his signature film was Guillermo del Toro, a creator of The Strain (2014 - present), the FX horror series. In the Masters Of Horror documentary, he recalled his reaction to seeing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

"From that moment until four years later, I didn't eat any meat," he said. "I became a total vegetarian."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'Warm-hearted man who made the 'most terrifying film ever''. Print Edition | Subscribe